"Cycles" mandala painting - Plunging back into art

Art, from the start

As a small child I liked to draw Havana-like, royal palm-lined streets full of bistros. However, after my seventh-grade art teacher—whom we even used to pick up whenever we saw her walking to school—flunked me on a still-life project I’d felt very proud of, I put my materials away.

Cuban street scene drawing - Plunging back into art

The kind of Cuban street scene I drew repeatedly as a boy, wishing I had been born in the tropics

At University of Cincinnati a decade later, I took a painting course to try something new. I didn’t even know how to behave in an art studio. Trying to look inconspicuous, I got out a tiny brush and began doing a line-painting of the easel next to mine. My teacher, an elderly gentleman named Mr. Foster, walked up to me, placed my biggest brush in my hand, and said “Use lots of colour and have fun!”

After a month or so of “mixing mud,” my work did become fun—very colourful and flamboyant. Mr. Foster’s “comment” on one abstract semi-collage, into which I’d glued a strip of leather coming off my shoe, was to take out a glass eye I didn’t even know he had, and place it in the painting!

Art remained fun, and sometimes profound, until I was around 40. Then I had an emotional breakdown, and it became the medium that brought me back to life (See “The Life You Save May Be Your Own“). My paintbrushes became wands—passports to a new visionary realm—each day. They showed me that although my outer life might be in shambles, inside me an infinite, beautiful wholeness lived untouched!

Painting took me from a halfway house back to living on my own and partaking as a student within the rich aesthetic atmosphere of New York’s Art Students League. A little later, I became a popular gallery artist, particularly at the Broadway Gallery in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where the young proprietress, Nina MacDuffy, tenderly mothered my work.

"Wisdom Eye" crayon piece - Plunging back into art

“Wisdom Eye,” a small crayon piece that was shown at Broadway Gallery

The plot thickens as the paint thins

At some point during my gallery period, however, I began to feel myself gradually “running out of paint.” I wasn’t certain of the reason for this, but my belief was, and remains, that the popularity of my work and its connection to sales began to subtly affect my motives for painting. Painting had been my survival, as well as a sacred activity that enabled me to partake of love and joy, but it slowly morphed, almost unnoticeably, into a form of competition both with myself and other artists. It was impossible not to be influenced by “the market.” Whereas I’d had an uncanny, intuitive sense of colour—and had once told a friend, honestly, that I couldn’t put a brush to paper or canvas without ending up with something worthwhile—that sense began to fade.

Prior to this period of flowering in visual art, writing had been my main focus. Now, it gradually became that once more. For the next two decades, it sustained me. Most of the relatively few paintings I came out with during those years were illustrations for stories.

And the pen runs out of ink

Recently, that source of inspiration and transcendence has seemed to dry up, as well. I once began my mornings, as poet William Stafford once described his creative process, “noodling around” in a notebook, and could pretty much guarantee that at least the germ of a poem would emerge from such a session. I also knew that I had a number of “autobiographical short stories” inside me that needed to be told. Eleven of those stories have appeared in The Mindful Word over the past few years, and a book of them, to be published by TMW, is now in the pre-publication stage.

Crescent moon painting - Plunging back into art

One of the few recent paintings that wasn’t a story illustration (2012)

New inspiration has been sporadic. For a writer to be “dry” is a terrible thing. It calls his (or her) whole life into question. Though I continue to work in a preschool and serve the children well, so far as I know, via music, stories, and companionship, I seem to require being some sort of vehicle of artistic creativity in order to feel fully alive.

My creative aridity led me, finally, to a new experiment. I took a cue from Dr. Carl Jung, who describes in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, how he began to paint a mandala every morning during a certain period of his life. Jung wrote, “It became increasingly plain to me that the mandala is the centre. It is the exponent of all paths.” I realized that I, too, needed to find my centre again. Art—possibly seeking to centre myself via mandalas, like Jung—might be a productive activity once more, and somehow facilitate the process of going beyond my stalemated ego. I certainly had nothing to lose. I took my art materials out of a closet where they’d been for years, and found them a permanent space in my office.

An experiment

Life seems to be arranged in chapters. We sometimes find ourselves taking “stabs in the dark,” no matter how intuitive or guided we may have felt a month or a year earlier.

My first effort in this series of paintings was not a mandala in the technical sense, but thematically, perhaps, it was. I saw a spontaneous mental image of a dense jungle of short palms. Upon one of the fronds that happened to be turned horizontally, there was a “Home,” a refuge with life and light. Behind it was a rising sun.

I decided to paint this image without analyzing it too much. It seemed fresh—slightly surrealistic, but part of the “phenomenology of the psyche”—a symbol. The image and the painting of it, together, were similar to another of Jung’s techniques called “active imagination.”

Painting of home in jungle - Plunging back into art

“Home”

There was enough life in this painting that I kept it propped where I could see it for the next few days. I also continued looking within, to see if another image might appear. What I began to experience, though, was a sense of burden—more of that feeling of being “off.”

A quotation from Meher Baba came to mind: “If you lay your entire burden at My feet, then I dare not neglect you and you get relief from your predicament.” My spiritual discomfort was profound enough that I decided to do a painting that refused to embellish my situation with artistic frills, but simply took my current predicament and depicted what Baba’s words suggested.

Placing burden at Meher Baba's feet painting - Plunging back into art

“Burden at Your Feet” (2016)

This painting may appear “naïve.” The focus in making it was entirely internal, more of a spiritual than an aesthetic effort. Meher Baba, to devotees, represents what Carl Jung calls the Self—the internal, all-inclusive Reality, the Centre. If you understand that, I believe the painting speaks for itself.

Carl Jung uses another phrase, “participation mystique,” which captured my imagination, and which I’ve amalgamated to use in my own way that’s much more positive than Jung’s. I see Art as a way to participate in the fluid universe, via creative symbols. I can’t, for example, literally bow before Meher Baba in his physical form today, because my Master left his body in 1969. But I can do it in a painting. It becomes—or so I feel—as real as the depth of my sincerity.

"Cycles" mandala painting - Plunging back into art

“Cycles” (2016)

My next painting came a day or so later. This one began as a mandala exercise. I simply sat before a blank piece of 12-by-16-inch (about 30 by 40 cm) art paper until I felt the impulse to paint. What emerged was something I called “Cycles.”

I would call this painting a mandala, although it’s not formally bounded by a circle. The piece began with the black circle at the centre. A need for a colourful counterpoint produced the red circle. Out of the tension between the two circles arose a foray into the wider picture space via the black spokes.

As the painting developed, it seemed to have something to do with rhythm, possibly with a certain depiction of “cosmological history.” Beginning with Nature’s primordial starry sky, the picture moves to the left, through zones of abstract shape and line, then to the penciled “cave painting” doodles in the lower right, and finally the integration of male and female dancers, painted with somewhat more energetic lines and with colour as well, in the upper right.

After this piece, I didn’t pick up a brush for two weeks. Then one day I saw a quote from Marie Louise von Franz, an eminent disciple of Jung, on Facebook. She wrote of “a situation without a solution: the unconscious wants the hopeless conflict in order to put ego-consciousness up against the wall, so that the man has to realize that whatever he does is wrong, whichever way he decides will be wrong. This is meant to knock out the superiority of the ego, which always acts from the illusion that it has the responsibility of decision.”

Von Franz goes on to say that if a person’s attitude is thoughtful in such a “rock and hard place” situation, the Self will usually emerge. My impulse to make a new picture, arising from her words, was motivated by an intense need to connect with the Self, the inner Centre that once more I personified as Meher Baba. I used a pencil to sketch, but then decided to stay with pencil to avoid complicating the simple depiction of “Communion” and the relationship between my personality (the mental impressions I think of as “me”) and the Real Self beyond such impressions but including them as well.

"Communion" pencil drawing - Plunging back into art

“Communion” (2016)

The next day I wanted to paint again—when in doubt, paint. What emerged seemed drenched in enough colour for itself and the previous piece! Colour, Jung once stated, equals feeling. Painting is a stirring of the unconscious, an “event” in the psyche that a person can introduce when such conscious stirring feels indicated.

On this particular day, I came to the art table with an image I’d been holding for some time. I wanted to dramatize, in paint, the idea that “your body is your Temple.” Many years back, my attention had been dramatically Gifted with what became a lifelong focus on this thought (see Section 5, Part One of “Falling Off the Map”).

I intended, somehow, to represent the body itself as a great Tree that could also be some sort of ancient Temple. This was a tricky proposition, which was why I’d been holding off on actually attempting this painting. But on May 1, I decided to give it a try. First I created the massive tree, a meticulous project requiring hundreds of small brush strokes. From there I proceeded naturally, according to intuitive feeling, to delineate the jungle environment.

Painting of naked meditator under tree - Plunging back into art

“Meditation” (2016)

This was a joyful project that I felt succeeded beyond expectation. As a matter of fact, when I saw the great tree there in the jungle, I realized that the arcane symbolism involved in making the tree simultaneously a Temple and some kind of aged quasi-human figure, with suggestions of facial features and perhaps some kind of Temple Door, was totally unnecessary. All that was needed was a simple naked human figure in meditation at the foot of the tree, so I got out my photo of the great Sri Ramakrishna, who would literally meditate in such surroundings before he realized God. Whatever I’d originally intended the painting to “say,” it now “said” clearly and strongly, without the need for the embellishments I’d imagined.

Onward

In my 30s, I had the good fortune to work with a great artist (actually, a former artist who’d gone blind and was then writing a novel) named Lyn Ott. I recently came across something Lyn said once in response to the question, “Where do you get your inspiration?”

He replied, “You can’t wait for inspiration! Your job is to do the work, to begin. And maybe inspiration will come. It’s a gift. Don’t wait around for inspiration. Your job is to show up and begin.”

So every day is a new experiment. Sometimes, in life, the “flow” comes easily. Sometimes we have more “labour pains.” And as the great philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”  And another handy quote from Meher Baba comes to mind here, too: “All suffering is your labour of Love to unveil your Real Self.”

And so, I intend to continue trying to move toward Centre (Self), and in the process be a vehicle for the creation of beauty and “significant form” in the only time there is—the Now.  The next image has already revealed itself in my imagination…

images 1-9: Max Reif